During the Aug. 3 broadcast of the pre-season opener game between the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants, players and coaching staff could be seen holding and using Microsoft Surface 2 tablets on the sidelines. But these players and coaches weren’t merely futzing with tablets for fun or instagramming selfies during their downtime. Instead, the debut of Microsoft tablets in a real NFL game marked the kickoff of the reported $400 million, five-year partnership between the National Football League and Microsoft to help stadiums upgrade their on-field technologies and enhance fan experiences.
And it’s pretty smart marketing, too, for both the NFL and Microsoft. The NFL gets to show off some of the tech innovations that it’s bringing to the 2014–15 season, while Microsoft gets plenty of airtime to hawk its faltering tablet system.
The Surface 2 tablets that NFL teams will have the option to use this season won’t be available to the public. In fact, the NFL’s stripped-down Surface 2’s feature disabled cameras and don’t have Internet access; instead, they utilize dedicated and secure stadium networks that enable the use of a Microsoft-developed Sideline Viewing System, which gives players and coaches the ability to instantly view full-color still images of plays. Additionally, images can be zoomed, annotated, and bookmarked for later viewing, although video capture during games has been disabled and the use of other apps are strictly forbidden on the tablets.
While the use of tablets in sports training isn’t anything new, upgrading the traditional and decidedly old-school binders of black and white photographs in favor of digital tools to review football gameplay in real-time is noteworthy. Having Surface 2’s on the sidelines also marks the first time that the use of electronic devices is being allowed to facilitate better strategy on the football field, and Microsoft worked closely with the NFL to ensure security and prevent savvier teams from gaming the system.
The multiyear agreement between the NFL and Microsoft reportedly extends to the development of NFL-branded apps and games through Microsoft’s Xbox system. Through the deal, Microsoft gains exclusive access to interactive content that can be ported into its various content channels.
The 2014–2015 season already looks to be shaping up to be the NFL’s most technologically advanced in years. With the opening of Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, in Santa Clara, Calif., NFL arenas will be upping the ante when it comes to providing fans with truly connected in-stadium experiences, with enhanced wifi connectivity and apps that go beyond way-finding to provide exclusive content such as instant replays and m-commerce opportunities.
It’s clear that the NFL is hoping to leverage high-tech as a way to lure fans back into watching football live and giving at-home viewers a closer look inside the game. For Microsoft, the added exposure could help boost Surface sales as demand for tablets are starting to wane.